What it means to be green

The News Minute, July 6, 2018:

Terracotta handicrafts and vessels, bamboo trinkets, organic grains, herbs and pulses up for sale. Children running around playing with natural stick and wheel toys made using Palmyra palm leaves. An array of fresh and dried herbs displayed along with lemon and betel leaves on a table to welcome guests. Green flex boards made of cotton and paper welcoming guests and announcing the wedding set to take place. Logeswaran and Geetanjali Ritika’s wedding on Thursday in Tirupur came with a twist – it was 100% green, right from the decorations to the plates used and the gifts given to guests.

What does it mean to be green? In this couple’s wedding, lots of single-use products were replaced with those made of organic, presumably recyclable, materials. This is admirable because the substitution is bound to have cut down on a lot of waste without diminishing the wedding experience. However, was it ‘green’?

The ongoing geological period is actually the Holocene, but a portion encompassing the last seven or eight decades has been dubbed the Anthropocene for the drastic ways in which humankind has modified Earth’s surface, atmospheric and ecological characteristics. One major driver of this change has been in the form of a non-equitable consumption and distribution of resources, perpetrated equally by colonialism and capitalism.

In this world, weddings have come to signify an important form of status-signalling, especially in India. The bigger the wedding, the more the materials purchased and consumed, the higher the social status of its organisers. Perhaps the most gross display of such wealth was in 1995, when J. Jayalalithaa’s nephew V.N. Sudhakaran wedded Sivaji Ganesan’s granddaughter Satyavati.

The purportedly ‘green’ wedding described above is no exception either. While various paraphernalia were constructed with organic materials, there was still all of the consumerism on display. Going green doesn’t demand that we substitute non-recyclable synthetic assets with recyclable organic ones; instead, it demands that we cut down on our consumption.

Without doing so, ‘going green’ is simply a band-aid, a very near-term solution to a problem whose consequences will be playing out, as well as will be ameliorable, only on the geologic timescale. In fact, I doubt it is a solution at all because the cost of our actions as consumers must be calculated along the entire value chain instead of at specific points on it, and battling the effects of climate change certainly entails that we focus on and evaluate our impact in the long-term.

The good news is that such behaviour begins with the individual; the bad news is that it is never confined to the individual. For example, consider the following excerpt:

“We harvested rainwater to serve drinking water to guests and for the food prepared for the wedding. Over 10 varieties of vegetables – from carrots and onions to chillies – were used to make the wedding feast, all of which was cultivated organically in the houses of Vanathukul Tirupur members itself,” [the bride’s father] adds.

Kumar says that even the food that was prepared conformed to the organic theme of the wedding and a vast array of herbal teas, organic gravies and homemade traditional sweets were served.

“We ditched ice-creams and beedis (paan), and instead served herbal tea for dessert. The wedding menu included maize potato bonda, mini banana blossom vadai for starters and idly, horse gram sambhar rice, tomato sambhar and other preparations for mains. The dessert spread had palm sugar dry ginger milk, herbal tea, mint lemon juice, wild banana, betel nut and slaked lime,” Duraisamy adds.

All of these products must have been grown, diverted off the market, transported to the location, cooked and served. The value chain stretches from the growing to the serving, not simply to the serving. Fixating on the latter only produces spectacles, and gives us a false sense of accomplishment because what we have accomplished is not environmentally friendly. If it had to be, then a register marriage would have sufficed.

(Curiously, the bride’s father appears to have gifted the groom with a cow and a calf “instead of the usual luxury car or bike”. Ergo this patriarchic ritual is firmly in place, only that vehicles have been switched out with cattle. And we all know the patriarchy restricts our ability to adapt to a warmer world.)

Of course, the ritualisation and celebration of culture is a very important part of being human, and what the ‘green wedding’ described above has essentially done is played a balancing act between zero consumption and the adherence to one’s traditional values. This is why my complaint begins and ends with the labels. Do what you can to protect the environment but don’t call it green unless you’ve brought consumption down to zero because only that, eventually, is green.

The awareness that weddings and similar events are hubristic is laudable but it is also expected of all of us as we plod through the 21st century. We must move past expecting laurels for every little and/or fragmented act of such ‘green-signalling’ and we must move past valorising such acts unless they go all the way. Until then, the Anthropocene will only be the Narcisscene.